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Self-Determination Theory in Work Organizations: The State of a


Article · April 2017

DOI: 10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032516-113108

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3 authors:

Edward L Deci Anja H. Olafsen

University of Rochester University of South-Eastern Norway


Richard M Ryan
Australian Catholic Univ., Strathfield, Australia


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Edward L. Deci,1,2,3 Anja H. Olafsen,2

and Richard M. Ryan1,3
Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology, University of Rochester, Rochester,
New York 14627; email:,
School of Business, University College of Southeast Norway, 3603 Kongsberg, Norway;
Institute for Positive Psychology & Education, Australian Catholic University,
Strathfield, New South Wales 2135, Australia

Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 2017. Keywords

autonomy, competence, pay, extrinsic rewards, basic psychological needs,
First published online as a Review in Advance on
January 11, 2017 intrinsic motivation
The Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Abstract
Organizational Behavior is online at Self-determination theory (SDT) is a macro theory of human motivation that evolved from research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and ex-
032516-113108 panded to include research on work organizations and other domains of life.
Copyright ⃝ c 2017 by Annual Reviews. We discuss SDT research relevant to the workplace, focusing on (a) the dis-
All rights reserved tinction between autonomous motivation (i.e., intrinsic motivation and fully
internalized extrinsic motivation) and controlled motivation (i.e., externally
and internally controlled extrinsic motivation), as well as (b) the postulate
that all employees have three basic psychological needs—for competence,
autonomy, and relatedness—the satisfaction of which promotes autonomous
motivation, high-quality performance, and wellness. Research in work or-
ganizations has tended to take the perspectives of either the employees (i.e.,
their well-being) or the owners (i.e., their profits). SDT provides the con-
cepts that guide the creation of policies, practices, and environments that
promote both wellness and high-quality performance. We examine the rela-
tions of SDT to transformational leadership, job characteristics, justice, and
compensation approaches.

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A large percentage of adults in the world work in organizations, and their jobs vary substantially.
Some have careers that are relatively interesting and valued by others. Their work conditions are
supportive, and they perceive their pay to be equitable. Others, however, have jobs that are de-
manding and demeaning. Their work conditions are uncomfortable, and their pay is not adequate
for supporting a family. They are likely to look forward to days away from work to feel alive and
well (Ryan et al. 2010). Both of these types of jobs may exist in organizations that are profitable.
Being profitable is a minimum expectation for an organization. However, highly effective
organizations are more than merely profitable for investors; they benefit all stakeholders, including
employees, investors, and consumers. These highly effective organizations promote both high-
quality performance (hence profitability) and employee thriving, in terms of motivation to work
Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 2017.4:19-43. Downloaded from

and wellness. In fact, rather than being antithetical aims, high-quality employee motivation and
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wellness can contribute to long-term organizational health, customer satisfaction and loyalty, and
financial success, as many modern consultants suggest (e.g., Doshi & McGregor 2015, Mackey &
Sisodia 2014, Pink 2009).
For decades self-determination theory (SDT) has addressed the links between motivation and
the dual concerns of performance and wellness in organizations. It has focused on what facilitates
high-quality, sustainable motivation and what brings out volitional engagement in employees and
customers. SDT suggests that fostering workplace conditions where employees feel supported in
their autonomy is not only an appropriate end in itself but will lead to more employee satisfaction
and thriving, as well as collateral benefits for organizational effectiveness. Because SDT details
the multiple factors, including managerial styles and pay contingencies, that support employees’
autonomy and competence at work, it provides a framework for allowing them to be more engaged
as they and their organizations develop and thrive.

SDT is a macro theory of human motivation that has been successfully applied across domains
including parenting, education, healthcare, sports and physical activity, psychotherapy, and virtual
worlds, as well as the fields of work motivation and management (Deci & Ryan 1985a, Ryan &
Deci 2017). SDT specifically suggests that both employees’ performance and their well-being are
affected by the type of motivation they have for their job activities. SDT therefore differentiates
types of motivation and maintains that different types of motivation have functionally different
catalyzers, concomitants, and consequences.

Autonomous Motivation and Controlled Motivation

Autonomous motivation is characterized by people being engaged in an activity with a full sense
of willingness, volition, and choice. Often, autonomously regulated activities are intrinsically mo-
tivated. Perhaps more important to the workplace, however, extrinsically motivated activities can,
under the right circumstances, also be autonomously motivated—that is, engaged with authenticity
and vitality. When individuals understand the worth and purpose of their jobs, feel ownership and
autonomy in carrying them out, and receive clear feedback and supports, they are likely to become
more autonomously motivated and reliably perform better, learn better, and be better adjusted. In
contrast, when motivation is controlled, either through contingent rewards or power dynamics,
the extrinsic focus that results can narrow the range of employees’ efforts, produce short-term
gains on targeted outcomes, and have negative spillover effects on subsequent performance and
work engagement.

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Intrinsic motivation. This is a specific type of autonomous motivation. It refers to activities for
which the motivation lies in the behavior itself. When intrinsically motivated, it is the spontaneous
experiences of interest and enjoyment entailed in the activity that supply the “rewards.” Intrinsic
motivation is a ubiquitous human phenomenon, but it is exemplified in the play of children, who
enthusiastically engage in activities without external rewards or prompts. However, intrinsic mo-
tivation is also evident in the activities of adults, such as sports and avocations, and it is surprisingly
important even in in the workplace. Employees can be intrinsically motivated for at least parts of
their jobs, if not for all aspects of them, and when intrinsically motivated the individuals tend to
display high-quality performance and wellness.
Cognitive evaluation theory (CET) (Deci & Ryan 1980), which is one of SDT’s six mini-
theories, became well-known within the organizational psychology literature (Ambrose & Kulik
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1999). It explained that intrinsic and extrinsic incentives are not necessarily additive and introduced
experimental research on the undermining effects of rewards (e.g., see Deci et al. 1999). These
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experiments were important in showing systematic effects of different reward contingencies on

intrinsic motivation, but perhaps more important was that they suggested that rewards could
shift people’s perceived locus of causality or perceived competence, thus diminishing their sense
of autonomy and/or their sense of competence. The implications of these early CET findings
are thus broader than just intrinsic motivation, because perceptions of autonomy and competence
impact the quality of extrinsic as well as intrinsic motivations. In fact, the primary distinction within
SDT, accounting for substantial variance in the outcomes of studies in work organizations, as well
as across domains, is the distinction between autonomous motivation and controlled motivation
(e.g., Ryan & Deci 2000, 2017), into which these early experiments had only begun to tap.

Extrinsic motivation. Extrinsically motivated behavior involves doing an activity to attain a

separable consequence, whether tangible or otherwise. That is, extrinsic motivation encompasses
all instrumental behaviors. Rather than viewing all extrinsic motivation as “bad,” which some
authors (e.g., Gerhart & Fang 2015) have claimed we did, SDT has always maintained that extrinsic
rewards can have different functional significances that lead to enhancements, diminishments, or
no effects on intrinsic motivation (e.g., Deci 1972). Furthermore, and very importantly, SDT has
long differentiated extrinsic motivation into various forms, each of which is recognizable in the
workplace, and which range from being less to more autonomous (Deci & Ryan 1985a, Ryan &
Connell 1989).
External regulation is at the least-autonomous end of the extrinsic-motivation continuum
of autonomy. When externally regulated, individuals perceive their behavior as being directly
controlled by others, often through contingent rewards and threats. As we shall see, external
regulation can powerfully motivate specific behaviors, but it often comes with collateral damage
in the form of long-term decrements in autonomous motivation and well-being, sometimes with
organizational spillover effects. A somewhat more autonomous form of extrinsic motivation is
introjected regulation, which involves people being focused on approval versus disapproval in their
jobs and from their leaders. Introjected behavior is self-controlled by processes such as contingent
self-esteem, ego-involvements, and guilt, as well as a concern with status and recognition. Still
more autonomous is identified regulation, in which the individuals have personally identified with
the importance or value of their work roles and behaviors. Because they have accepted as their
own the rationale for acting, they are more autonomously self-regulated and are flexible in both
selecting and sustaining their behavior and activities. Finally, when people assimilate and integrate
their identifications, they can act through integrated regulation, which is the most mature and
volitional form of extrinsic motivation. Integration is very important because there is potential for
conflict among different identifications (e.g., an identification with one’s job and an identification • Self-Determination Theory 21

OP04CH02-Deci ARI 23 February 2017 6:19

with one’s family), so people need to bring them into coherence. When identifications have been
integrated, people are wholeheartedly engaged and purposive with respect to the target activities,
and without inner barriers or conflicts.
According to SDT, these varied types of extrinsic motivation are salient to different degrees
in workplaces, and each has predictable consequences. For example, some work environments
foster more autonomous motivation and engagement in their employees, whereas others have
them focused more on external contingencies or managers’ approval.
Importantly, these motivations can be seen as lying along an autonomy continuum, with the
order from least to most autonomous being external, introjected, identified, integrated, and intrin-
sic. Supporting this, when these motivations are measured in populations, their intercorrelations
typically form a simplex-like pattern (Ryan & Connell 1989), in which the types of motivation
Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 2017.4:19-43. Downloaded from

most closely aligned along the continuum are most highly associated. The simplex pattern has
been observed in hundreds of studies of motivation across domains such as health, sports, and
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education (Ryan & Deci 2017), as well as work (Gagné et al. 2015, Williams et al. 2014).
There has thus been interest and debate about how best to model the simplex and the unique
variances of motivational subtypes. In some studies, motivation types have been algebraically com-
bined to form a relative autonomy index (RAI), which allows the investigator to relate employees’
overall autonomy versus control to other variables. The RAI has been predictive of organizational
outcomes in a variety of contexts and settings (Ryan & Deci 2017). In other studies, investi-
gators have contrasted autonomous (intrinsic, identified) with controlled (introjected, external)
SDT, with a multidimensional view, expects that specific qualities will be associated with each
of the different motivation types and that they will be systematically ordered along the underlying
continuum of autonomy, but Chemolli & Gagné (2014) questioned the continuum because it did
not fit with a unidimensional Rasch model, which we would not have expected it to. Their data
were derived from the multidimensional work motivation scale (MWMS) (Gagné et al. 2015),
which assesses employees’ intrinsic, identified, introjected, and external regulation, as well as
their “amotivation.” Results using the MWMS were largely consistent with the expected simplex
pattern, but not with a Rasch model. A subsequent article by Howard et al. (2016) used bifactor
analyses on an academic motivation scale, finding evidence for a continuum of autonomy as well
as unique variances for distinct motives. Research from other labs using other analytic strategies
have similarly shown support for SDT’s idea that these motivational types differ in their relative
autonomy, with important functional consequences [Roth et al. 2006; K.M. Sheldon, E.N. Osin,
T.O. Gordeeva, D.D. Suchkov, O.A. Sychey (manuscript under review)]. However modeled,
the general expectation from SDT is that more autonomous forms of motivation will predict
greater persistence, performance quality, and well-being over time than will controlled forms,
and that each of these forms of motivation will be systematically related to leadership styles, work
conditions, and pay contingencies.

Basic Psychological Needs and Their Supports

Fundamental to SDT is the idea that the impact of varied environmental factors (e.g., job design,
pay contingencies, managerial styles) on workers’ motivations and experiences is largely medi-
ated by a small set of basic psychological needs. They are the needs for competence or effectance
(e.g., White 1959), relatedness or belongingness (e.g., Baumeister & Leary 1995), and auto-
nomy or self-determination (e.g., de Charms 1968), which are essential for psychological health
and well-being and facilitate effective functioning in social settings (Ryan 1995). Accordingly,
SDT researchers have regularly hypothesized and consistently found that social settings such as

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workplaces that support satisfaction of the basic psychological needs facilitate autonomous mo-
tivation, psychological and physical wellness, and enhanced performance, especially on heuristic
activities (Deci & Ryan 2000). As such, the concept of basic need support emerged as a crucial
concept to describe the conditions within social contexts such as workgroups that influence moti-
vation, wellness, and performance. The more narrow concept of autonomy support is also often
used to describe social contexts, and research suggests that basic need support and autonomy
support are closely related and have very similar consequences (Fernet et al. 2012a,b).


SDT’s mini-theories have broad implications for organizations (Gagné & Deci 2005), and numer-
Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 2017.4:19-43. Downloaded from

ous research reports on SDT constructs within work organizations have appeared in the recent
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empirical literature. Here we review some of the more important ones. Figure 1 shows these
core elements of SDT as applied to the work domain, depicting the general SDT model of work
motivation. This model begins with two primary sets of independent variables: social context
variables and individual difference variables. The predominant social context variables are the
organizational supports versus thwarts of employees’ basic psychological needs for competence,
relatedness, and autonomy, and they are viewed as being strongly influenced by managerial styles.
Supports of the three needs are often used as a composite, although many studies have examined
just autonomy support. In fact, when there is organizational and managerial support for autonomy,
supports for and satisfaction of all three of the employees’ basic psychological needs at the general
level are often quite highly correlated, first because authorities who support autonomy generally
are attuned to and supportive of the other needs, and second because when employees have a sense
of autonomy they themselves find ways to get the other needs satisfied. Thus, when employees
experience support for autonomy they typically also feel more connected to the organization, and
feel more effective, for reasons we review in this article.
The most typical individual difference variables used in SDT studies have been the employees’
general causality orientations (Deci & Ryan 1985b). Underlying the measure are three moti-
vational orientations that employees can generally experience—an autonomy orientation that is

Independent Mediators Dependent

variables variables

Work behaviors
Workplace context Performance
Need supporting
Basic Motivations
psychological Quality
Need thwarting Autonomous Quantity
needs Intrinsic
Satisfied vs. Internalized
Individual Autonomy Introjected Health and wellness
differences Competence External
Relatedness Well-being, vitality
Causality orientations Ill-being
Aspirations and goals

Figure 1
The basic self-determination theory model in the workplace. • Self-Determination Theory 23

OP04CH02-Deci ARI 23 February 2017 6:19

proactive and interested, a controlled orientation that is focused on external contingencies to

guide behaviors, and an impersonal orientation that lacks intentionality and is concerned with
avoiding assessments and failures. Each of these can be differentially salient to employees, and
in some research such orientations have been primed in individuals (e.g., Weinstein et al. 2010).
Another measure of individual differences in SDT is extrinsic versus intrinsic aspirations or goals
(e.g., Kasser & Ryan 1996), as is discussed below in the section on Employee Aspirations, have also
been used in some studies of workplace motivation and satisfaction (e.g., Sheldon & Krieger 2014).
Research on this general model, shown schematically in Figure 1, has had two types of mediat-
ing variables: first, satisfaction of the three basic psychological needs, typically used as a composite
(Baard et al. 2004), but sometimes analyzed with each need separately (e.g., Richer et al. 2002),
and second, autonomous and/or controlled motivation (e.g., Fernet et al. 2012a, Williams et al.
Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 2017.4:19-43. Downloaded from

2014), sometimes supplemented by perceived competence, especially in studies of health behavior

change among adults (e.g., Williams et al. 2004). Some studies rather than assessing autonomous
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motivation have assessed only its intrinsic motivation component and examined its relation to
other variables (e.g., Kuvaas 2009, Olafsen et al. 2015). Typically, researchers have used either
the set of need satisfaction variables or the motivation variables, although a few studies have used
both, in which case they have tended to predict the motivation variables from the need satis-
faction variables, typically as mediating variables between independent variables and dependent
variables (De Cooman et al. 2013). Finally, as noted in the introduction to the article, there have
tended to be two types of dependent variables: performance variables (e.g., quantity or quality of
performance or profitability) and well-being/ill-being variables (e.g., job satisfaction, vitality, or
somatic symptoms). Many studies have selected a subset of variables, such that, for example, what
are shown in the figure as mediators might be used as independent variables predicting outcomes.
Other studies have examined the relations of some of the SDT variables to variables from other
perspectives in the organizational literature. For example, studies have examined transformational
leadership, which bears some relation to need-supportive management, as that leadership relates
to basic need satisfaction, autonomous motivation, or both.

Research on the Self-Determination Theory Model in Work Organizations

In reviewing organizational research guided by SDT, we begin with studies of types of motivation
(e.g., autonomous and/or controlled) and their consequences, followed by ones that examine need
satisfaction/frustration variables, and their consequences. We then move on to more complex sets
of variables that include situational variables such as need supports.

Consequences of autonomous motivation. Autonomous motivation is a central SDT variable

for predicting workplace outcomes. It is comprised of employees’ reports of both intrinsic motiva-
tion and well-internalized extrinsic motivation. The theory assumes that when people can identify
with the value and importance of their work they will show enhanced qualities of work motivation.
For example, in a study of more than 500 employees of a college, Fernet et al. (2010) found that
autonomous work motivation led to less burnout. Richer et al.’s (2002) research on alumni from
a business school showed that employees’ autonomous motivation for their jobs was related to
more work satisfaction and less emotional exhaustion; in turn, the work satisfaction was related to
lower turnover intentions, and the emotional exhaustion was related to higher turnover intentions.
Importantly, the level of turnover intentions predicted subsequent employee departures.
Foss et al. (2009) found that intrinsic (i.e., autonomous) motivation was positively predictive
of knowledge sharing (i.e., performance), whereas external (i.e., controlled) regulation was nega-
tively predictive of giving knowledge and unrelated to receiving it. Moreover, in other research,

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Kuvaas (2009) found that intrinsic motivation for work among public sector employees positively
predicted their self-reported work performance. Fernet et al. (2012a) examined both autonomous
and controlled motivation of school principals and found that their autonomous motivation was
negatively related to work exhaustion but positively related to work commitment, whereas con-
trolled motivation was positively related to exhaustion.
Autonomous motivation has also been examined as a moderator of relations between other
pairs of variables. For example, Trépanier et al. (2013a) found that employees high in autonomous
motivation experienced less stress in the presence of high job demands than did those low in
autonomous motivation. Two studies by Grant et al. (2011) revealed that personal initiative posi-
tively predicted objective indicators of performance only for those who were high in autonomous
motivation and low in controlled motivation.
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A study done in more than three thousand companies in the Netherlands found that indicators
of job autonomy among employees predicted profitability of the company (Preenen et al. 2016),
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although that main effect was relatively weak. This is to be expected, of course, because numerous
major factors influence a company’s revenue, including changes in relevant national and interna-
tional markets. Nonetheless, there was also an interesting moderation effect indicating that there
was a much stronger relation between employees’ autonomy indicators and profitability in younger
companies compared with long-established companies. For the newer companies, vital inputs from
employees appear to be particularly important for getting established and becoming profitable.
In sum, these studies and many others have shown that autonomous motivation predicted less
burnout, work exhaustion, and turnover, as well as greater work satisfaction, work commitment,
and performance, whereas controlled motivation has tended to show opposite results.

Consequences of need satisfaction. The SDT variables, other than autonomous and controlled
motivation, that are most often used as predictors of work outcomes are satisfaction and frustration
of the basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Research with these
variables found that satisfaction of the three needs led to less exhaustion (Van den Broeck et al.
2008) and less organizational deviance on the part of employees (Lian et al. 2012). In their research
on workaholism, Andreassen et al. (2010) found that satisfaction of employees’ basic psychological
needs on the job led to greater enjoyment of their work and to their being less driven—that is,
less compelled—by internal and external controls. One of the relatively few workplace studies that
examined both basic need satisfaction and autonomous motivation indicated that, as predicted by
SDT, employees who felt greater need satisfaction on the job also displayed greater autonomous
motivation and effort expenditures (De Cooman et al. 2013). Finally, a meta-analysis of 119 distinct
samples showed that each of the three basic need satisfactions predicted independent variance in
intrinsic motivation and well-being, although it indicated that the need satisfactions were less
effective in predicting negative outcomes than positive ones, leading the researchers to suggest
using need frustration as well as need satisfaction as a predictor (Van den Broeck 2016).
Gillet et al. (2012) did study both satisfaction and frustration of the basic psychological needs
of organizational employees, revealing that satisfaction of the three needs yielded greater hedonic
and eudaimonic well-being, whereas frustration of the three needs led to lower levels of each type
of well-being. A large study of Flemish employees showed further that frustration of the basic
needs predicted poorer work-related well-being, as indexed by greater exhaustion (Vander Elst
et al. 2012).
With the various studies confirming that either autonomous motivation or basic psychological
need satisfaction was a reliable predictor of positive work-related outcomes, it became essential to
explore the antecedents of these types of motivational experiences to understand how to promote
wellness and high-quality performance in organizations. • Self-Determination Theory 25

OP04CH02-Deci ARI 23 February 2017 6:19

Work contexts, motivations, needs, and outcomes. In many of the studies on situational fac-
tors in workplaces that might affect motivation variables, the focus has been on the atmosphere
of work groups assessed by employees’ perceptions of their managers being autonomy support-
ive or need supportive. These variables comprise such managerial behaviors as acknowledging
the employees’ perspectives, offering choices, providing meaningful feedback, encouraging initi-
ation, making assignments optimally challenging, and giving a rationale when requesting that an
employee do a particular task.
One study of the work experiences of police officers (Otis & Pelletier 2005) indicated that
when the officers perceived their supervisors to be high in autonomy support, the officers were
more autonomously motivated for work. They also reported stronger intentions not to leave
their jobs, fewer hassles during their workdays, and fewer physical symptoms. Moreau & Mageau
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(2012) investigated health professionals and found that when the professionals received autonomy
support from their supervisors, they reported more work satisfaction and better psychological
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health, but the researchers also found that autonomy support from their healthcare-professional
colleagues added to the positive outcomes. Studies of teachers from China (Nie et al. 2015) and
Gambia (Levesque et al. 2004) showed that when teachers perceived their supervisors to be more
supportive of their basic needs, the teachers reported higher levels of autonomous motivation and
were more satisfied with their jobs and their lives. In contrast, when teachers in Canada (Fernet
et al. 2012b) felt coerced and controlled by their supervisors, they had lower levels of autonomous
motivation and displayed more symptoms of burnout.
In conducting research on hotel employees, Hon (2012) found that when managers were
empowering (i.e., supportive of autonomy) and coworkers were supportive of relatedness, the em-
ployees were more autonomously motivated and more creative in their work, but if the managers
were pressuring and coercive, the employees were less motivated and creative. In Norway, re-
search on employees showed that managers’ support for the employees’ basic psychological needs
prompted more autonomous motivation among the employees as well as fewer psychosomatic
symptoms and less emotional exhaustion, turnover intentions, and absenteeism (Williams et al.
During a period when a Canadian telecommunications company was undergoing a substantial
change, investigators assessed the degree to which managers were autonomy supportive at two
points in time (just as the change was beginning and 13 months later). Autonomy support was
indicated by employees’ perceiving that the managers acknowledge the employees’ perspectives,
offer choices, and provide rationales when asking the employees to do various behaviors. As well,
these employees reported their attitudes toward the change at the same two points in time. Results
of the research indicated that the more the managers were perceived to be autonomy supportive
at Time 1, the more accepting their employees became of the changes over the 13-month period
(Gagné et al. 2000).
Baard et al. (2004) explored motivational dynamics in employees of two banking companies in
the New York area. They assessed the degree to which the employees experienced their super-
visors to be autonomy supportive and found that those who viewed their managers as higher on
autonomy support experienced greater satisfaction of their competence, autonomy, and related-
ness needs. Furthermore, they also assessed the level of the employees’ individual differences in
the autonomous causality orientation and found that being high on the global level of autonomy
contributed significant additional variance to the bankers’ basic need satisfaction, although auto-
nomy support from the managers explained considerably more variance in need satisfaction than
did the employees’ autonomous orientation. In turn, employees’ basic need satisfaction predicted
their performance as assessed with the standard performance evaluations in the companies, and

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also predicted greater well-being of those employees. In short, psychological need satisfaction
predicted both of the important categories of work outcomes—wellness and productivity—and
managers’ autonomy support was the major contributor to employees’ need satisfaction.
Liu et al.’s (2011) research on an American manufacturing company found somewhat similar
results to those of Baard et al. (2004) for bankers. Liu et al. found support for their hypotheses
that autonomy support from both managers and peers, as well as employees’ autonomous causal-
ity orientation, would lead to more work engagement and less voluntary withdrawing from the
company. On the other side of the coin, in an investigation of nurses, Trépanier et al. (2013b)
found that need-thwarting behaviors such as bullying on the job led to less work engagement and
more work burnout as mediated by frustration of the basic psychological needs.
Together the primary findings of these studies indicate that autonomy support from man-
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agers in a variety of work settings enhanced both satisfaction of the basic psychological needs and
autonomous motivation, and in turn yielded a range of positive work outcomes, including greater
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engagement; enhanced work performance; higher psychological well-being; and lesser amounts
of exhaustion, ill-being, and turnover. Additionally, the individual difference of the autonomous
causality orientation explained additional variance in work outcomes from that explained by man-
agers’ autonomy support. In addition, less autonomy support and more need thwarting from
abusive manager behaviors related to a variety of negative consequences.

Employee aspirations. In addition to general causality orientations, which are the primary indi-
vidual differences in SDT, life goals or aspirations are also used as general individual differences
for predicting outcomes in various domains (Ryan et al. 1996). SDT most often considers seven
aspirations that people may be pursuing as important over their lifetimes: financial wealth, recog-
nition or fame, attractive image, personal development, meaningful relationships, community
contributions, and physical fitness. Empirically, these aspirations load on two factors referred to
as extrinsic aspirations (the first three goals) and intrinsic aspirations (the last four). Research has
also shown that when people place relatively strong importance on the extrinsic aspirations, and
also when they attain the extrinsic aspirations they desire, they tend to show signs of psychological
ill-being, such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, whereas when they pursue and attain
intrinsic aspirations, they tend to show indications of psychological well-being, such as high self-
actualization and self-esteem (Kasser & Ryan 1996). Subsequent research (Sheldon et al. 2004)
found that the prediction of well-being from intrinsic versus extrinsic aspirations was independent
of its prediction by autonomous versus controlled motivation, even though intrinsic aspiration and
autonomous motivation tend to be correlated, and extrinsic aspiration and controlled motivation
also tend to be correlated.
A few studies have examined the value workers place on these goals in their workplaces, exam-
ining the relations of the valued goals to various workplace outcomes. In multiple Belgian studies,
researchers explored these goals, which they referred to as work values, to enhance our under-
standing of the role played by people’s personal goals on their work outcomes. In two studies with
many hundreds of employee participants, Vansteenkiste et al. (2007) found that the participants
who held stronger extrinsic goals relative to intrinsic goals were less satisfied with their jobs and
their lives. In a follow up study, the same researchers found the additional displeasing outcomes
of emotional exhaustion, higher turnover intentions, and more work-family conflict among those
employees who were relatively higher on extrinsic than intrinsic work values. Subsequently, Van
den Broeck et al. (2010) found that those with more intrinsic work goals were more flexible in
their work than those with extrinsic goals, and Van den Broeck et al. (2011) found that individuals
with relatively high intrinsic work aspirations who engaged in learning opportunities were less • Self-Determination Theory 27

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emotionally exhausted than those with relatively higher extrinsic aspirations. Additionally, in a
New Zealand study, Roche & Haar (2013) found that employees higher in intrinsic goals en-
gaged in more organizational citizenship behaviors, and Schreurs et al. (2014) found that when
employees found their workplace to be supportive of more intrinsic work values the employees
experienced more basic psychological need satisfaction and were more engaged in their work. In
sum, it is clear from these various studies that when employees hold intrinsic work values and
goals more strongly they will be more effective employees and when the workgroup supports the
intrinsic values and goals, there will be further advantages.
Another study, which was focused specifically on the aspiration for money (Landry et al. 2016),
found that the outcomes associated with aspiring to accumulate money depended on one’s mo-
tive for doing so. More specifically, if people’s motives for pursuing wealth were more integrated
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and thus were more need-satisfying and less need-frustrating, the aspiration was positively associ-
ated with well-being and negatively with ill-being. However, if the motives were less integrated and
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thus were less need-satisfying and more need-frustrating, the aspiration was positively associated
with ill-being and negatively associated with well-being.
Sheldon & Krieger (2014) identified large samples of private-firm lawyers who had high-
paying jobs within money-focused firms (e.g., doing securities-related work) and public-service
lawyers who had jobs focused on serving the public (e.g., doing sustainability-related work for
nonprofit organizations). As one would expect, those lawyers in the money-focused jobs had
greater extrinsic aspirations relative to the public service group. They also had much larger annual
incomes, suggesting they were getting what they valued. Nonetheless this money-focused group
reported greater negative affect, lower well-being, and more alcohol consumption compared to
a group of public service attorneys. Here, evidence shows that even a successful focus on the
attainment of extrinsic goals does not reliably yield more happiness or well-being.

Needs across cultures. One of the criticisms of SDT has been that it is a Western theory
because it emphasizes autonomy, which cultural relativists claim is pertinent to individualistic
cultures but not to collectivistic cultures such as those in East Asia (e.g., Markus & Kitayama 1991).
However, that criticism was based more on a definition of autonomy as independence, detachment,
and individualism than on autonomy as volition, choice, and concurrence. Accordingly, Chirkov
et al.’s (2003) research in South Korea, Russia, Turkey, and the United States indicated that in all
of the cultures, when people were more autonomous (i.e., volitional) in enacting behaviors—both
behaviors consistent with the values of their own cultures and behaviors consistent with the values
of other cultures—the individuals were psychologically healthier, indicating that satisfaction of the
autonomy need is necessary for greater personal well-being, even in cultures for which collectivism
is a central value.
In the domain of work, research has also confirmed that autonomy is important for positive
work outcomes in nonindividualistic cultures. Deci et al. (2001) examined the basic psychological
needs of employees in both Bulgarian and American companies. At the time Bulgaria was mov-
ing only very slowly from a central-planning economy with the large companies still owned by
the government toward a somewhat more capitalist economy; as such, the economic system and
the culture were still very different from those in the United States. The investigators assessed
employees’ perceptions of the managers’ autonomy supportiveness in several national companies,
as well as the employees’ experiences of need satisfaction, engagement, and well-being at work.
Comparable data were obtained from the American employees. Results indicated that, in both
cultures, managers’ autonomy support predicted satisfaction of the employees’ autonomy, com-
petence, and relatedness needs, which in turn predicted their work engagement and well-being.

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Clearly, employees’ autonomy was important not only within America’s capitalist economy but
also in the more socialist economy of an emerging Bulgaria.
Studies of organizations in varied nations and economies from Europe to Asia (e.g., Nie et al.
2015, Van den Broeck et al. 2010) have fruitfully applied SDT to an understanding of employee
engagement and well-being. These studies have made clear that, across cultures and industries,
it is important to differentiate types of motivation into autonomous and controlled motivations,
and sometimes into their subtypes, and also to attend to the degree to which the basic psycho-
logical needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are satisfied versus frustrated, to predict
important workplace outcomes. Simply stated, managers’ supports for the basic psychological
needs as well as both the basic need satisfactions and autonomous motivation of employees ap-
pear to have universal importance for achieving the desired work outcomes related to effective
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performance and employees’ wellness. We now turn to studies that have examined interventions
done in work organizations focused on the same types of variables used in field studies thus far
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Intervention Studies
In the first of the SDT intervention studies in work organizations, Deci et al. (1989) performed
an intervention in a Fortune 500 Company that was going through a difficult competitive period
causing a significant decrease in profitability. The company was interested in improving its orga-
nization’s interpersonal context throughout, and the researchers worked in one national division
with branches around the country. Each branch had a manager, with approximately 8 to 10 middle
managers who supervised teams of 15 to 18 employees. The core of the intervention was to train
managers in the branches to be more autonomy supportive. The primary concepts that guided
the intervention were ones that had been shown to promote autonomous motivation, basic need
satisfaction, and positive work outcomes. The first was taking the employees’ perspective, which
involves really listening to and understanding their ideas, asking for their viewpoints, thinking
about how you might understand the situation if you were in their position, and allowing them to
express their emotions in difficult situations. The second concept was to facilitate the employees’
taking more initiative by allowing more group participation in decision making, and encouraging
individuals to make choices about how to do aspects of their own jobs. The third concept was
providing informational feedback rather than controlling and demeaning feedback. It was clear
from the change agent’s interviews and observations that there was more negative feedback than
positive feedback being given in the organization, and that the negative feedback was quite amoti-
vating. So, managers learned to give more positive feedback that was specific to the behaviors their
peers and employees had done well and that was not formulated in terms of the recipients’ worth
as individuals. They also learned to formulate “negative feedback” in terms of a problem to be
solved and one that the employees could be actively engaged in solving. The intervention included
a total of three days offsite with the managerial team in each branch, and one team meeting that
each manager held with his or her team that the change agent observed and discussed with the
manager afterward. At all times, the change agent was modeling autonomy support.
Managerial autonomy support, as well as employees’ attitudes and satisfactions, were assessed
before and after the intervention in the experimental group and at the same times in the control
group. Analyses revealed that the managers became more autonomy supportive as a result of the
intervention and that this positive effect radiated to their employees who reported greater job
satisfaction and expressed greater trust in the top corporate management. It is very interesting
to find that when an employees’ immediate manager became more autonomy supportive, the
employees developed more positive and trusting attitudes toward the top management who would • Self-Determination Theory 29

OP04CH02-Deci ARI 23 February 2017 6:19

have been many levels above these employees in the organizational hierarchy and with whom
these employees would not have had any contact.
Forest et al. (2014) reexamined this Deci et al. (1989) intervention to do an economic utility
analysis. They calculated its cost to the organization in current dollars and then the mental health
savings likely to accrue to the organization. Through this analysis, Forest et al. concluded that the
return on investment for the organization from such an intervention, which yielded a meaningful
impact on autonomy support and autonomous motivation, would be more than 3 to 1.
In another intervention study within a Fortune 500 company, Hardré & Reeve (2009) randomly
assigned managers to either a training-intervention group or a nonintervention group. Those in
the experimental group were trained in the principles of SDT and in how to put them into
practice in a corporate organization, whereas those in the control group received no training.
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Before the intervention, and then again five weeks after, the autonomy support of managers
from both groups was assessed by having them write a story about a problem they had recently
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encountered with employees and about how they handled the situation. Trained research-team
members then rated the stories for the degree of autonomy support displayed by the managers.
As in the Deci et al. (1989) study, the trained managers evidenced more autonomy support at the
post-training assessment than did the nontrained managers. Importantly, at the five-week follow-
up, the employees of the trained managers were more autonomously motivated and more engaged
in their work than the employees of the managers who did not receive the training. Together,
these two intervention studies indicate that it is possible to train managers to be more autonomy
supportive and that when successfully done, one can expect the training not only to affect the
managers’ behaviors but also to have a positive impact on the motivation, behavior, and affective
experiences of their employees.
Lynch et al. (2005) researched an intervention with employees of a residential psychiatric
hospital for youth. Employees in such settings often feel unsafe because the youth do not regulate
their emotions effectively, leading the workers to have low job satisfaction, motivation, and well-
being and to aggressively restrain the youth, which can do physical harm to both staff and patients.
The investigators in this study worked with the top management of the facility, who developed
an intervention focused on making this workplace more supportive of the needs for competence,
autonomy, and relatedness for the employees as well as the patients. They began by involving
the staff in very active discussions with regard to this major change, which was intended in part
to leave the staff feeling greater need satisfaction and commitment to treatments that are more
positively oriented and more effective. One of the aims was to use less physical restraints as part
of the treatment and more generally to make treatment more need satisfying for the youth as well
as making work more need satisfying for the staff. By beginning with staff need support through
involvement with the planning, the change agents were attempting to facilitate internalization of
the value and regulation of a more need-supportive and less restrictive treatment approach, thus
feeling more ownership over the new methods being employed.
Results of an evaluation study indeed showed that, as staff experienced more satisfaction for
their basic needs, they more fully internalized the regulation of changes and thus were more
autonomous in carrying out this new treatment approach. The staff also reported more job sat-
isfaction and greater well-being at work. Perhaps the most gratifying finding was that, as the
staff became less restrictive, the patients experienced more satisfaction of their basic psychological
needs, which manifest as more autonomous motivation for their own treatment. This study thus
adds an important supplement to the studies done in Fortune 500 companies because it testifies to
the generalizability of these effective approaches to intervening in work organizations to promote
more need satisfaction of employees and, perhaps, their clientele.

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Characteristics of Jobs
Although SDT has not devoted a great deal of attention to specific characteristics of jobs or tasks,
the concept of managerial need support includes several concepts that are often addressed in the
job design or job characteristics literature as aspects of employees’ jobs. Early work by Hackman &
Oldham (1980) emphasized autonomy and task identity as important aspects of jobs that promote
high performance, whereas we view them as supports for the autonomy need provided by managers’
orientations and behaviors. Similarly, we view feedback as a support for the competence need and
task significance as a support for both the autonomy and relatedness needs. In line with this view,
several studies have shown that facilitative job characteristics promoted basic need satisfaction,
autonomous motivation, and positive work outcomes, including job satisfaction and performance
(e.g., Gagné et al. 1997, Millette & Gagné 2008).
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More recent work by Morgeson and colleagues (e.g., Morgeson & Campion 2003, Morgeson
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& Humphrey 2006) has expanded the list of job characteristics and introduced social aspects of
jobs as well as the specific task characteristics. They have also found that various job charac-
teristics relate to satisfaction of one or more of SDT’s basic psychological needs for autonomy,
competence, and relatedness (Humphrey et al. 2007). Work by Grant (2007) and Parker (2014)
has further focused on the importance of relatedness in the workplace, with Grant emphasizing
the importance of having jobs in which the employees understand how their work benefits others
and Parker focusing more on the employee outcomes of learning and development, health and
well-being, and flexibility, all of which have been found to result when employees are more au-
tonomously motivated and experience greater satisfaction of the needs for competence, autonomy,
and relatedness (e.g., Baard et al. 2004).

Leadership in the Workplace

During the past quarter of the twentieth century leadership scholars introduced and advocated a
type of leadership that focused on charismatic individuals leading through inspiring, encouraging,
stimulating, and empowering (Avolio & Bass 1995, Bass 1985, Bass & Avolio 1995, Burns 1978).
Referred to as transformational leadership, such leaders would set an example of being engaged
with work and of solving problems with enthusiasm and open mindedness. A transformational
leader would have transformative ideas that rise above what others are thinking, along with the
enthusiasm to communicate the ideas and to support employees in ways that will vitalize them and
instill a sense of meaning associated with the transformative ideas. This is done through individ-
ualized consideration, which from an SDT perspective is likely to support the basic psychological
needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. For the leader to support these needs, through
acknowledging the employees’ perspectives in their discussions, offering choice about how to en-
act the ideas, and refraining from pressuring behaviors and language, the leaders will be more
successful in facilitating the employees’ autonomous motivation.
In contrast to transformational leadership is transactional leadership, which is a more con-
ventional approach that includes using contingent rewards, emphasizing norms, and monitoring
employees’ behaviors. Recent research has shown that perceived transformational leadership does
promote employees’ basic need satisfaction (e.g., Hetland et al. 2011) and autonomous work mo-
tivation (Conchie 2013, Graves et al. 2013, Wang & Gagné 2013). Furthermore, research has
shown that the relations of transformational leadership to work engagement, commitment, and
job satisfaction is mediated by satisfaction of basic needs (Gözükara & Simsek 2015, Kovjanic
et al. 2012). Moreover, Bono & Judge (2003) found that when leaders were more transformational
their employees were more committed to the organization, tended to adopt more autonomous • Self-Determination Theory 31

OP04CH02-Deci ARI 23 February 2017 6:19

work goals, and displayed higher job satisfaction. Transactional leadership, however, had nega-
tive relations to basic need satisfaction (e.g., Hetland et al. 2011) thus prompting less effective
motivational processes and outcomes. Other research has shown that the transformational leaders
themselves require basic need satisfaction, such that those leaders who are getting their own needs
satisfied are more likely to be transformational in their approach (Trépanier et al. 2012).

The Role of Pay in the Workplace

There is little doubt that most people would not continue to do their jobs if their pay were to
stop. That is, relatively few people find their jobs interesting and important enough that they
would continue on if they were unpaid. Accordingly, it is essential that rewards or incentives be
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considered when thinking about motivation in the workplace.

Perhaps the most controversial sets of findings within the umbrella of SDT is directly related to
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pay—namely, the findings concerning reward effects on intrinsic motivation and related concepts.
A few psychologists have argued that the laboratory research examining reward effects on intrinsic
motivation is not valid (Eisenberger & Cameron 1996), an argument that has been shown to be
incorrect by the definitive meta-analysis by Deci et al. (1999) of 128 reward-effects experiments.
A few other psychologists have argued that the rewards research is not relevant to the workplace
(Gerhart & Fang 2015), which is a conclusion that misinterprets aspects of SDT and misses some of
the main points of the reward research itself. So we now turn to a discussion of that reward-effects
research before moving on to a consideration of pay studies in work organizations.
The first studies of reward effects on intrinsic motivation for an activity revealed that tangible
rewards undermined intrinsic motivation for the activity, whereas positive feedback (referred to by
some as verbal rewards) enhanced intrinsic motivation (Deci 1971). Furthermore, if the tangible
rewards were not contingent on actually doing the task they were not undermining of intrinsic
motivation (Deci 1972). We interpreted this set of findings in terms of whether the functional
significance of the rewards was informational or controlling (Deci & Ryan 1980). When the inter-
pretation of rewards is informational they convey positive competence information thus satisfying
the recipient’s basic psychological need for competence and enhancing intrinsic motivation. Pos-
itive feedback on average has this functional significance. In contrast, when the interpretation of
rewards is controlling, people feel pressured to think, feel, or behave in particular ways, so the
rewards frustrate people’s basic need for autonomy, thus undermining intrinsic motivation. Often
tangible rewards have this functional significance (Deci et al. 1999), although when they are not
contingent on doing the task they are neither informational nor controlling so they tend not to
affect intrinsic motivation.
Contingent rewards have been differentiated into three types: engagement-contingent, which
means receiving rewards simply for working on the task; completion-contingent, which means
receiving rewards for each task trial completed; and performance-contingent, which means re-
ceiving rewards for meeting some standard of excellence on the task. All three types of tangible
rewards have been shown on average to significantly decrease intrinsic motivation, although the
performance-contingent rewards have had a somewhat smaller negative effect than the other two
contingencies. The performance-contingent rewards were somewhat controlling because partic-
ipants had to do very well to get the rewards, and they were somewhat informational because
getting the rewards confirmed the recipients’ competence. The meta-analysis showed that, on
average, the controlling aspect was stronger, so that, although the informational functional sig-
nificance offset some of the controlling functional significance of the rewards, the controlling
aspect was still strong enough to significantly decrease intrinsic motivation. An additional study
made clear that rewards are most likely to undermine intrinsic motivation when the rewards were

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not only contingent—whether engagement-, completion-, or performance-contingent—but were

also salient (Ross 1975).
As we have said, even though in general people “like” getting rewards, on average the rewards
yield these negative effects on intrinsic motivation because, when rewards are made contingent,
it becomes salient that the experimenter is controlling the rewardees’ behavior. In a company
setting, it is typically the supervisor who is experienced by subordinates as doing the controlling.
Using controlling rewards in a workplace may not only diminish employees’ autonomy; it can
also lead them to focus on aspects of their jobs to which the rewards are most clearly linked and
to give less attention to aspects of the jobs that are not incentivized (e.g., knowledge sharing,
team contributions, organizational citizenship behaviors) but that are nonetheless valuable to the
organizations. In contexts where some behaviors are experienced as being contingently rewarded,
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others are thereby implicitly experienced as not being important because there is no reward focused
on them, thus leading to employees disengaging from the aspects of work they see as devalued.
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That such collateral damage occurs was documented by Gubler et al. (2016) in a recent study of
an intervention that used monetary awards to improve attendance in industrial laundry plants. The
researchers found that, although the awards had a positive effect on the attendance of employees
who had had a poor record, it also prompted strategic gaming of the system. Furthermore, the
award-changed behaviors that were observed in eligible employees were not maintained over time.
Also and notably, the awards undermined the internal motivation of employees who, prior to the
awards program, had had excellent attendance, leading them to exhibit poorer attendance than
they had previously shown. Finally, the award effect spilled over to other tasks in the plants, with
employees reporting decreased motivation for tasks that had not been awarded. Seen here is evi-
dence that incentives can affect employees’ autonomy and responsibility, sometimes in unintended
negative ways.

Reward contingencies and types of pay. Pay-for-performance (PFP), which is often advocated
for work organizations, would be closely related to both the completion-contingent rewards (e.g.,
sales commissions and piece-rate payments) and performance-contingent rewards (e.g., higher
pay and larger bonuses for meeting performance standards), whereas hourly pay would most
closely compare to engagement-contingent rewards, and salaries would relate to noncontingent
rewards, although higher-level executives are likely to have some PFP as well as their salaries.
The vigorous controversy surrounding rewards in the workplace is focused primarily on PFP,
which, many researchers have argued, will motivate employees to perform better (e.g., Komaki
et al. 1978). We now examine the relations of intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives to

Considering the relations of motivations to performance. From an SDT perspective, there

are several important factors that must be considered to make a meaningful evaluation of ap-
proaches to compensation (e.g., PFP). First, it is important to differentiate types of performance
that one might use as the dependent variables in evaluating the effects on performance of incen-
tives, pay, and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Nearly 40 years ago, McGraw (1978) noted the
difference between algorithmic and heuristic tasks and reviewed evidence showing that rewards
tended to enhance performance on algorithmic tasks and diminish performance on heuristic tasks
(see, also, Deci & Ryan 1985a). More recently, a meta-analytic study by Cerasoli et al. (2014) em-
phasized the importance of distinguishing between quantity and quality of performance, whereas
Weibel et al. (2010) distinguished between performance on simple tasks and complex tasks. Al-
gorithmic tasks are relatively simple whereas heuristic ones are more complex, and the focus of
algorithmic tasks tends to be on quantity whereas the focus of heuristic tasks is often on quality. • Self-Determination Theory 33

OP04CH02-Deci ARI 23 February 2017 6:19

Thus, these three distinctions are reasonably well aligned. In short, performance is a broad con-
cept, and it is important to understand that there are different types of tasks and, accordingly,
different types of performance. We use the quantity-quality distinction to encompass the three
distinctions just presented.
Second, just as it is imperative to consider reward or incentive contingencies when exam-
ining reward effects on intrinsic motivation, it is similarly so when considering reward effects
on performance. As with Cerasoli et al. (2014), we use the distinction of directly and indirectly
performance-salient incentives because completion-contingent and performance-contingent re-
wards are both directly performance salient.
Third, as we argued in the Introduction, considering the effects of pay or rewards on psy-
chological health and well-being, in addition to their effects on performance, is essential for any
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meaningful evaluation of compensation approaches.

Having specified these three considerations, we now discuss the effects of both intrinsic moti-
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vation and extrinsic incentives on the quantity and quality of performance. Earlier in this article
we made clear that PFP (i.e., completion-contingent and performance-contingent rewards) does,
on average, reliably undermine intrinsic motivation (see, also, Deci et al. 1999). The most perti-
nent questions then concern the relations of both intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives to
high-quality performance and wellness.

A performance meta-analysis. Cerasoli et al. (2014) performed a meta-analysis with a total

of 183 effects that examined relations from both intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives to
performance and examined the important moderators of types of performance (i.e., quantity and
quality) and types of incentive contingencies (i.e., directly and indirectly performance salient).
Some of the studies were in the workplace, some in physical activity settings, some in schools, and
some in psychology laboratories.
The first important finding in the meta-analysis by Cerasoli et al. (2014) showed that intrinsic
motivation had a moderate to strong relation to performance across all studies and all types of
performance, whether or not incentives were also being used. Accordingly, this indicates that
intrinsic motivation is extremely important for the workplace. Furthermore, in line with the un-
dermining effect of rewards on intrinsic motivation, Cerasoli et al. found that intrinsic motivation
had a weaker effect on performance when incentives were directly salient, and a stronger relation
to performance when the incentives were not directly salient.
In more nuanced analyses, Cerasoli et al. (2014) found that intrinsic motivation was a stronger
predictor of performance quality, whereas extrinsic incentives were a stronger predictor of perfor-
mance quantity. In a similar vein, Weibel et al. (2010) in their meta-analysis found that extrinsic
incentives led to better performance on simple tasks but to poorer performance on more complex
tasks. In short, PFP appears to be effective for motivating performance as quantity of simple,
algorithmic tasks, but not performance as quality of complex heuristic tasks. Furthermore, PFP
seems to interfere with the relation of intrinsic motivation to high-quality performance.
Finally, Cerasoli et al. (2014) did not report research relating intrinsic motivation and extrinsic
incentives to well-being or ill-being, and there has been relatively little research relating PFP
to indicators of well-being or ill-being. In contrast, substantial research has shown consistently
across life’s domains that autonomous motivation, consisting of intrinsic motivation and fully
internalized extrinsic motivation, is related strongly positively to human wellness (see, e.g., Ryan &
Deci 2017 for a review in multiple domains). There has been somewhat less research on controlled
motivation and wellness, but still clear relations have been found between controlled motivation
and ill-being. In so far as controlled motivation is prompted by PFP, which is implied by the
undermining effect and was shown to be true by Kuvaas et al. (2016) in a work organization, this

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OP04CH02-Deci ARI 23 February 2017 6:19

would suggest that PFP might be related to less wellness, although further research is needed to
draw conclusions on this. Still, without meaningful evidence on the relation of PFP to well-being,
or at least to basic psychological need satisfaction, which is invariantly related to well-being, it
would be inappropriate to argue for PFP as an effective compensation system, even though it has
been found to relate positively to quantity of performance.

Research on pay in work organizations. Because the relations between rewards and intrinsic
motivation had been examined primarily in laboratory experiments, Olafsen et al. (2015) conducted
a study of Norwegian bankers to examine the relation of amount of pay to intrinsic motivation
in an ongoing work organization. Also, because SDT research has consistently found the con-
cepts of basic psychological need satisfaction and contextual (i.e., managerial) need supports to
be important for positive work outcomes including performance and well-being, Olafsen et al.
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included those two concepts in their research. In addition, because equity or justice has long been
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shown to be an important consideration concerning pay (e.g., Adams 1963, Greenberg 1987) the
researchers included Colquitt’s (2001) measure of distributive and procedural justice. The primary
outcome variable in the study was intrinsic motivation, and satisfaction of the basic psychological
needs was considered a potential mediator.
Analyses of the data revealed that amount of pay was positively related to distributive justice,
indicating that the more pay employees received, the more just they believed the payments to
be. That is, greater pay does lead to employees feeling more fairly treated and valued. More
important, however, is that the amount of pay employees received did not predict psychological
need satisfaction and intrinsic motivation, nor did distributive justice. In contrast, managerial
need support predicted procedural justice, need satisfaction, and intrinsic motivation, with need
satisfaction being a mediator.
In research mentioned previously, Kuvaas et al. (2016) explored whether there would be dif-
ferences between the outcomes associated with pay that was stable—that is, base salary—and
pay that was variable because it was directly performance contingent. Insurance companies pro-
vided data about employees’ performance under PFP plans, which involved employees receiving
sales-performance bonuses either at the end of each quarter or at the end of the year. The per-
formance under these two PFP approaches was compared to performance associated with the
base salaries. Results of the study showed that base salaries, which, as noted, are not directly
performance-contingent, related positively to autonomous motivation and were unrelated to con-
trolled motivation, whereas for those who received the bonus incentives in accord with their sales,
their PFP was negatively related to autonomous motivation and positively related to controlled
motivation. Thus, as we saw in the laboratory experiments, performance-contingent rewards (aka
PFP) were experienced as controlling and decreased autonomous motivation. Base salaries, which
are more related to noncontingent rewards, were shown in the Deci et al. (1999) meta-analysis
and the Olafsen et al. (2015) field study to not affect autonomous motivation, although they were
found in the Kuvaas et al. (2016) study to correlate with autonomous motivation, suggesting that
further research is needed in workplaces to clarify the relation of salaries (i.e., noncontingent pay)
or hourly compensation (i.e., engagement-contingent pay) to autonomous motivation. In general,
however, it is likely that higher base salaries (i.e., noncontingent pay) have a positive influence, as
they may well convey valuing by the organization.
The Kuvaas et al. (2016) field study further showed that autonomous motivation was a strong
predictor of the effort salespeople devoted to their jobs, whereas controlled motivation was a weak
predictor. Additionally, autonomous motivation was a strong negative predictor of employees’
turnover intentions, whereas controlled motivation was a positive predictor of those intentions.
To summarize, PFP tends to result in controlled, rather than autonomous, motivation, leading
employees to exert less work effort and have greater desire to leave their jobs. • Self-Determination Theory 35
OP04CH02-Deci ARI 23 February 2017 6:19

Another study, also in the realm of sales, showed even more negative outcomes resulting from a
PFP program (Harrison et al. 1996). Done in the telecommunications industry, employees worked
entirely on commissions after a two-month orientation to their jobs, so their pay was wholly, and
in a very direct way, dependent on their performance. Results of the study showed that three-
quarters of the salespeople had left the company within a year, which obviously would have been
very costly for the company.
The three studies just reviewed, when combined with the results of laboratory experiments,
other field studies, and meta-analyses, indicate that PFP approaches to compensation, in spite of
being strongly endorsed by writers such as Gerhart & Fang (2015), promote quantity of perfor-
mance largely for simple, algorithmic tasks, but do not enhance high-quality performance. Fur-
thermore, although these studies did not examine well-being outcomes, they did examine intrinsic
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and autonomous motivation and basic psychological need satisfaction, which are strongly related to
well-being, and one of the studies examined turnover, which is strongly related to ill-being. In sum,
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for high-quality performance and well-being, providing equitable pay that is not directly contin-
gent on performance along with an autonomy-supportive context, appears to be an optimal route.

Critiques of SDT. There have been various critiques of SDT in the organization literature
through the years, largely with respect to issues surrounding rewards or pay. Recently, Gerhart &
Fang (2015) provided an extensive review and critique of CET. Throughout, they argued strongly
for a PFP approach to compensation in the workplace, yet Cerasoli et al. (2014) and Jenkins et al.
(1998) showed that PFP promoted only quantity of performance, not quality. Our view is that,
although quantity of performance is important in some situations, high-quality outcomes are,
in general, the more important. Furthermore, Gerhart & Fang argued that free-choice intrinsic
motivation was not relevant to the workplace, but Cerasoli et al. also provided strong evidence
that intrinsic motivation positively predicted both overall performance and quality of performance.
Moreover, Gerhart & Fang missed the major point of the intrinsic-motivation experiments, which
is that pay contingencies influence perceived autonomy and perceived competence, which are
important elements in all workplace motivation, not just intrinsic motivation.
In terms of rewards and pay, SDT research has consistently shown that whether rewards have a
positive effect, no effect, or a negative effect on intrinsic motivation and internalization depends on
their functional significance, which is influenced by the type of rewards (positive feedback versus
tangible rewards), the type of reward contingency, which we have discussed in detail, and the in-
terpersonal context within which they are administered (autonomy-supportive versus controlling).
Concerning the importance of autonomy-supportive contexts, Ryan et al. (1983) showed that
when performance-contingent monetary rewards were given in an autonomy-supportive con-
text, participants showed more intrinsic motivation than those in a control group in which
the rewards were engagement contingent without positive feedback, thus suggesting that the
autonomy-supportive context highlighted the informational aspect of performance-contingent
rewards. Other research using many paradigms has consistently related autonomy-supportive
contexts to better performance and greater well-being (e.g., Baard et al. 2004), and research by
Olafsen et al. (2015) showed that pay did not relate to employees’ basic psychological need sat-
isfaction or intrinsic motivation, but managerial autonomy support was a positive predictor of
both, thus suggesting that the work context being autonomy supportive is more important than
the amount of pay for motivating performance and wellness.
As we said in the Introduction, evaluating payment approaches and other factors in the work-
place requires examining their relations to both performance and well-being outcomes. However,
Gerhart & Fang (2015) did not address the relation of PFP to well-being. In contrast, a plethora of
research has shown that autonomous motivation and satisfaction of the basic psychological needs

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OP04CH02-Deci ARI 23 February 2017 6:19

did predict both of these work outcomes. This indicates that creating autonomy-supportive con-
texts within the workplace and providing pay that is relatively nondirectly contingent within those
settings are the more effective means for attaining optimal work outcomes, rather than falling back
on PFP, which does not have strong empirical support as a predictor of high-quality performance
and well-being.
One form of PFP that is particularly problematic is outcome-contingent rewards. Outcome-
contingent rewards are those in which contingent pay is given for attaining specific outcomes.
Examples include bonuses to top managers when stock prices increase; salary increases for teachers
based on improved student test scores; or rewards for outproducing others within the company
on some sales or service metric. We have argued that outcome-focused rewards are the most
likely among all reward types to yield collateral damage—that is, to lead to gaming the system
Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 2017.4:19-43. Downloaded from

(Ryan & Deci 2017). As Ryan & Brown (2005) discussed, unlike traditional operant techniques
that reinforce specific behaviors, outcome-focused rewards can reinforce any behaviors that lead
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to the outcome, whether or not it is best practice. Such PFP structures can thus lead to short-term
routes to outcome attainment at the cost of more strategic ones. For example, high-stakes tests
in schools foster “teaching to the tests,” and in organizations quarterly bonuses lead to short-
term “profit taking,” often irrespective of longer-term goals. Finally, outcome-focused PFP often
requires persistent monitoring and evaluating, which can be demoralizing.

Future Research
As an empirically based approach to human motivation, SDT has, from the start, evolved with a
keen interest and desire to test, expand, and refine its propositions and integrate important new
contributions into the framework. In this spirit, many questions remain. However, as we have
moved forward, that refinement has been increasingly in the hands of an extensive international
community of scholars doing cutting-edge research on SDT, always challenging its formulations
and refining its implementations. Next, we discuss some important future research topics to be
explored on SDT concepts in the workplace. We provide a list below:
! Assess both workplace thwarts of basic needs and the frustration of employees’ needs for
predicting negative work outcomes.
! Examine how tangible rewards and pay affect internalization of regulations for work behav-
! Improve psychometric properties of measures of autonomous and controlled motivations
and satisfactions and frustrations of the basic psychological needs.
! Relate the functional significance of various pay contingencies to motivations and work
! Examine concrete workplace tasks, characteristics, and managerial behaviors in relation to
motivation and work outcomes.
! Study the impacts of advanced technologies, in interaction with work climates.
! Use more longitudinal designs and more objective measures.
Nonetheless, advances in the empirical basis of SDT have often been unexpected by us, such as
the recent use of SDT to organize research on human space travel (Goemaere et al. 2016). Thus,
the topics raised in the above list and following discussion are undoubtedly merely a taste of what
will come.
Clearly one area of particular importance is that of compensation. More research is needed
that focuses on the functional significance of various aspects of compensation, including the effects
of absolute and relative pay levels, perceived distribution and fairness, and PFP contingencies. In • Self-Determination Theory 37

OP04CH02-Deci ARI 23 February 2017 6:19

particular, the manner in which distributive justice within organizations, and more generally the
perceived corporate support for all stakeholders (e.g., employees, customers, upper management,
and stockholders), appears likely to affect psychological need satisfactions and to moderate the
relations of compensation to performance and well-being. Finally, there has been relatively little
research on how payment systems affect the internalization of work values and behaviors.
Relatedly, given the strong evidence that satisfaction versus frustration of the basic psycholog-
ical needs predict well-being and performance, it would be important to examine how factors in
the workplace influence basic need frustration. Included in this would be examining the various
conceptions of job characteristics as they represent thwarts to and thus frustration of the basic
psychological needs. Many factors such as job characteristics can potentially affect whether work
contexts are need supportive or need thwarting, and research clarifying this would help specify
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optimal conditions for workplace engagement.

In much of the SDT research to date the focus has been on the degree to which a social context
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(e.g., the interpersonal atmosphere of a workplace) is high versus low in autonomy support. As we
pointed out in the section on Work Contexts, Motivations, Needs, and Outcomes, recent work has
emphasized that the active thwarting of autonomy (or basic needs more generally) appears to be
much more effective in predicting negative outcomes such as ill-being, so future research should
examine both need supports and need thwarts, and do it longitudinally with objective measures.


The concept of basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness provides
the framework for understanding the implications of SDT for the workplace. Every policy and
practice implemented within a work organization is likely to either support or thwart the basic
psychological needs. Anyone interested in improving the work context within an organization and
thus the performance and wellness of its employees could evaluate any policy or practice being
considered in terms of whether it is likely to (a) allow the employees to gain competencies and/or
feel confident, (b) experience the freedom to experiment and initiate their own behaviors and not
feel pressured and coerced to behave as directed, and (c) feel respect and belonging in relation
to both supervisors and peers. Policies or practices that are likely to support the employees in
each of these three ways are likely to facilitate autonomous motivation, well-being, and high-
quality performance. Those that thwart any of these employee experiences are likely to promote
controlled motivation or amotivation, along with ill-being and, at best, quantity but not quality
of performance.
For example, work settings, in which supervisors acknowledge employees’ perspectives, en-
courage self-initiation, offer choices for individuals and groups, provide meaningful feedback,
assign tasks that are optimally challenging, and give a rationale when requesting a behavior are
likely to lead to both high-quality performance and wellness, as mediated by basic psychological
need satisfaction and autonomous motivation. At the level of immediate supervisors, the evidence
is abundant that when the supervisors are more autonomy supportive there are a range of positive
consequences for the employees, including trust of managers higher in the organization.

SDT as a theory of work motivation has been unique in that, through differentiating motiva-
tion into autonomous and controlled types, it has been able to show that autonomous motiva-
tion but not controlled motivation of employees promotes both high-quality performance and
employee wellness. Thus, the theory has been able to attain the traditional goal of organizational

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OP04CH02-Deci ARI 23 February 2017 6:19

psychologists—namely, facilitate profitability—and at the same time support the well-being of

the employees. SDT has long been concerned with specifying empirically the social-contextual
conditions that promote autonomous motivation. The key to that evolves from the proposition
that all human beings have three fundamental psychological needs—for competence, autonomy,
and relatedness—which when satisfied promote autonomous motivation, wellness, and effective
performance. Thus, SDT has been centrally concerned with promoting the need-supportive con-
ditions across domains that facilitate people motivating themselves autonomously and in turn
working well and feeling good. Because work contexts that support the basic psychological needs
have superior outcomes, research on the job characteristics, types of justice, managerial styles, and
types of leadership has burgeoned. We have also found that compensation systems that reward peo-
ple equitably without pressuring them with PFP contingencies can add to the basic need supports.
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Understanding the functional significance of managerial tools such as compensation, deadlines,

monitoring, goal setting, and work design is essential within today’s effective organizations.
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The authors are not aware of any affiliations, memberships, funding, or financial holdings that
might be perceived as affecting the objectivity of this review.

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Annual Review
of Organizational
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Volume 4, 2017
Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 2017.4:19-43. Downloaded from

Perspective Construction in Organizational Behavior

Karl E. Weick ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ 1
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Self-Determination Theory in Work Organizations: The State

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A Road Well Traveled: The Past, Present, and Future Journey of
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Emotions in the Workplace
Neal M. Ashkanasy and Alana D. Dorris ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣67
Field Experiments in Organizations
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Recruitment and Retention Across Cultures
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Transition Processes: A Review and Synthesis Integrating Methods
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Comparing and Contrasting Workplace Ostracism and Incivility
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Psychological Capital: An Evidence-Based Positive Approach
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Alternative Work Arrangements: Two Images of the New World
of Work
Gretchen M. Spreitzer, Lindsey Cameron, and Lyndon Garrett ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ 473
Communication in Organizations
Joann Keyton ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ 501
Collective Turnover
John P. Hausknecht ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ 527


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